||South Africa, Lesotho & Swaziland|
Days 140-176 - Monday 10th March to Tuesday 15th April 2008
Made it to South Africa - hooray. Now we just have to make it to Cape Town without being mugged or carjacked... Crossed the border into the state of Mpumalanga and made our way east to the Blyde River Canyon - the third biggest in the world - where the dramatic Drakensberg escarpment drops away to the loweveld plains. Quite impressive. But our main reason for heading out this way is to visit Kruger National Park.
I was convinced that Kruger would be really commercial compared to what we'd seen so far, and that it would be full of tour groups. True, some of the camps are more like motorway service stations and you sometimes come across 10 cars parked up looking at a lion, but actually I was really impressed. You can't beat Kruger for sheer size (it's as big as Wales) and diversity of the landscapes and animals, and it's really easy to get away from the crowds - although I wouldn't like to be here during school holidays. Spent five fantastic days cruising round, the highlight being 'Big Five Friday' where we chanced across elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion and leopard all in one day. The leopard sighting was a real David Attenborough moment and we couldn't quite believe our eyes. Having been scanning every tree for days it was quite a shock to actually see one. We also got charged by a baby elephant with huge flapping ears.
From Kruger we crossed into Swaziland. Very green and pleasant, we stayed for a couple of nights in the Mlilwane Game Reserve. It rained constantly the whole time we were there, so we treated ourselves to a couple of nights in a rondavel and visited the Royal Swazi Spa with its thermally heated waters. Got chatting a girl who turned out to be part of the royal family, although, half the country seems to be a prince or princess because the king takes a new wife every year. He's got 11 so far. Polygamy is a problem though, and along with Botswana and South Africa, Swaziland has one of the highest rates of HIV infection in the world.
On to Sodwana Bay, South Africa's most famous dive location, and the world's southernmost tropical reefs. Spent a great couple of days with a really good crowd, and escaped just before the Easter rush. As we were driving out the road was jam-packed with big cars towing yachts, speedboats and quad bikes coming the other way. South Africans take their holidays very seriously.
Figured the coast was best avoided over Easter weekend so headed across Zululand - renowned for its poverty and its battle sites, including Rorke's Drift, made famous by Michael Caine in Zulu - to the central Drakensberg. Spent a day hiking in the Cathedral Peak area and soaking up the dramatic scenery + had a freezing cold dip at a waterfall. Robin has some relatives near Pietermaritzberg, who happened to be going to stay at their friends' trout farm for the weekend and kindly invited us along. A real retreat with loads of great food - no fish though...
Up the Sani Pass and into Lesotho - Africa's 'kingdom in the sky'. The road was originally a donkey track and is incredibly steep (30-degree gradients) and bendy. At the top is Africa's highest pub, which feels like a ski chalet and even sells mulled wine. Pretty chilly up here, but we were blessed with good weather (it was down to -4 C last week) so braved the cold and bush camped. There are no fences in Lesotho and you can free camp anywhere, although it's polite to ask in the nearest hut.
The scenery in the east is mountainous and really dramatic - it reminds us of Tibet because it's up on a plateau, the locals are all wrapped in blankets and the animals are long-haired and wooly. Lesotho is noticeably much poorer than the surrounding countries and has few natural resources. The children run to the road when they see a car approaching and hold out their hands. It also takes forever to get anywhere because the roads are so bendy and bumpy. Great place though.
We rather under-estimated how long it would take us to drive to the Wild Coast. The place we'd been planning to stay near Coffee Bay was full so we headed on to Cintsa, arriving pretty late. It was a real party place (and we're pretty out of practice), but we decided that if you can't beat 'em, join 'em and had a fun few days by the beach.
Next stop: Jeffrey's Bay, surf capital of South Africa, where Endless Summer was filmed. The supertubes, described as 'the most perfect wave in the world' were flat as a pancake while we were there, but there are loads of surf shops and factories. Bought a surfboard (so cheap what with good exchange rate and VAT refunds) - can't wait to try it out on the supertubes in the Gower.
Spent a couple of days in the Tsitsikamma National Park, on a stunning campsite right by the beach, and walked the first part of the Otter Trail - a hardcore five-day trek along the coast. Good to rediscover our leg muscles after six months trucking. We've officially joined the Garden Route now (and seen our first signposts for Cape Town); the fynbos vegetation smells amazing.
On past Plettenberg Bay and Bloukrans Bridge (highest commercial bungee in the world) to Knysna where we visited some more relatives. Turns out one of my second cousins builds boats (big, posh catamaran-type boats) and we were treated to a trip out on the lagoon - the full treatment complete with oysters and wine. Must keep discovering more of these relatives.
Up the Outeniqua Pass to the self-proclaimed ostrich capital of South Africa: Oudtshoorn (pronounced 'ote-sorn'). Pretty awful place with tacky ostrich paraphernalia everywhere. It didn't help that we were there on a Sunday so everything was closed. Escaped the town and stopped for lunch at a genuine ostrich farm with a beautiful homestead. Ostrich pate followed by smoked ostrich lasagne: delicious.
Stopped over in Swellendam, which is right next to a forest and has some lovely walks. Then on to Cape Agulhas, the southernmost tip of Africa where the Atlantic and Indian oceans meet. Something of a landmark for us: although the official end to our trip is Cape Town, it's pretty amazing to think we've driven from the top of Africa right to the very bottom.
Our last stop before Cape Town to spend a couple of days in the winelands. We stayed in Stellenbosch and did one of those backpacker-style tours where they drive you round in a minibus. This seemed like a good option as we didn't want to be driving ourselves and it turned out to be a real laugh - and surprisingly we did actually learn lots about wine (which we promptly forgot).
Nervously we drove on towards Cape Town, but procrastinated our arrival by detouring round the Cape Peninsula. Everyone talks about Cape Town's spectacular setting and it really is stunning with so much natural beauty right on its doorstep. After visiting the pengins at Boulders Beach and Cape Point National Park we drove along Chapman's Peak Drive and into the CBD. It was with mixed emotions that we sank our first celebratory beer at the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront: after such a fantastic trip we didn't want it to end. The solution? We'll just have to start planning the next trip...